Beyond Mashujaa day: The economics of heroism

By XN Iraki

Every generation boasts of its heroes spawned by time and circumstances. In the past, wars and victories created new heroes. It is amazing that in most of human history, heroes were made through death and destruction, killing each other or destroying civilisations.

It may be that, unable to tame nature, man found it more prudent and easier to turn on his fellow human being. That is not long time ago; some of those who fought in the trenches of World War II are alive and about.

In Kenya, the most publicised heroes follow the same pattern. In our traditional societies, heroes were spawned by raiding neighbours and sharing the spoils. Kenya’s next generation of heroes came through fighting against colonialism or domination by each other after Uhuru.

The new Constitution is about ending this domination, unless allowed by democratic means. Removing Moi day and Kenyatta day from our calendar of holidays may have been an attempt to give other heroes some space.

It is another issue how we define a hero in Kenya, intellectually and in reality. For example, we praise and sing for those who delivered us from the yokes of colonialism and internal dictatorship, but forget those who did the real deliverance, through their own death.

Except Dedan Kimathi, many other heroes died in the forest but are now forgotten. Where is General Kiinie? Why don’t we have heroes’ cemeteries like Arlington in the US, West Minister Abbey in the UK, Aoyama in Japan or even commonwealth war cemeteries that are scattered throughout Kenya?

Modern heroes are made from different circumstances, except 2008 skirmishes, we have not been at war in Kenya. Some bold observers note that these skirmishes were a hangover from old thinking on heroism and those who participated in that dark period of our history might have felt like heroes, albeit misplaced.

Taming nature through science and technology has now become the new avenue through which heroes are made. That is how Nobel Prizes are won. Starting new enterprises is better route to heroism than fighting neighbours.

It is not surprising that Europe enjoyed the longest period of peace as trade and commerce flourished. We rarely quarrel with Tanzania or Uganda because we trade a lot with them. Would more trade with Somali pacify her?

The media has created new heroes through acting and music. Children in Kenya probably know more about superman than Jomo Kenyatta. While there are several programmes in which our youth compete on acting, music and dancing, from Sakata to Tusker Project Fame, hoping to become heroes or heroines, there are few programmes that promote science and technology.

I will always ask why the winners of drama festival visit State House and not the winners of Science Congress. Are we surprised that more students in our universities have enrolled in social sciences, yet modern heroes, particularly economic heroes seem to come from sciences, from Bill Gates, to Akio Morita (Sony), Thomas Watson (IBM) and many others?

Economists will argue with their characteristic economicspeak that heroism generates lots of utility or satisfaction. We all feel good after any heroic act. Further, as we pursue heroism, we often solve national problems. The society benefits from our heroics. Adam Smith noted more than 200 years ago that as we pursue our personal interests, the whole society ends up benefitting.

As we pursue our passions and interests, the whole country benefits. If each professional, entrepreneur or elected official pursued his interests with passion, with the sole objective of being a hero, we could transform this country economically in less than a generation.

We do not become heroes by doing what everyone else does; we become heroes by exceeding expectations. Economists will note that heroes are more productive than ordinary people. Heroes also solve our problems using new methods or improving on the existing methods, they are often innovators, willing to go against the grain.

Buy influence

Heroes do not shy away from confronting problems and ensuring that each generation enjoys higher standards of living than the previous one. Heroes are like engines, they pull along the reluctant majority into economic progress.

Julius Muia, the Secretary General, National Economic and Social Council says we need a new value system to define who a hero is. Observers have opined that our current value system does not encourage heroism; perhaps the reason people do extra ordinary things to be recognised including stealing from public coffers then using the same money to buy influence.

Our hero recognition system needs revamping. How is one classified as a hero beyond being active in politics? Who does the recognition, how objectively? Is the market for heroism efficient? Can we have an objective system of “scoring heroism”? We would wish all heroes are easier to recognise and reward like our sportsmen, number one is number one!

We all react to incentives and heroes need incentives too, beyond public recognition. How do we reward our professionals, elected leaders and entrepreneurs as they pursue heroism, by exceeding our expectations?

We could immortalise our heroes by naming public places after them. Why do we still have a street named Bweha? What did a fox do to deserve such honour? We could incentivise heroes by invoking their names in speeches living to their ideals and buying their products or services?

How do we create heroes when we are more likely to quote Shakespeare, dead for centuries and not the living Ngugi wa Thiong’o? How do we create economic heroes when anything imported is considered superior?

Where do we go from here? How can we leverage on heroism?

The starting point is getting parametres of heroism, currently heroism it is too lopsided towards politics, and no wonder too many people think the apex in heroism is being an MP and in future governors or senators.

Using the current parametres, few will ever be heroes because only a few ever become politicians, even with devolution. What is worrisome is the number of self –proclaimed heroes who demand to be addressed by titles they got dubiously, without any heroism.

Can heroism be devolved too so that we have national and local heroes? There are great heroes who will never make it to the national level but deserve recognition.